Most clothes come with simple washing instructions, but denim has a whole different set of diktats. Wear in the bath during a cold soak? Put in your freezer overnight? If you’ve recently invested in a jean jacket and are confused about the care process, read on to learn how to keep your denim sanitary.
Your mum may have drilled into you basic (read: boring but necessary) laundry rituals, but when it comes to dirty denim, you need to take on a whole new attitude to washing. In short, step away from your machine and turn off your tumble dryer. Sure, you might be bored of being told how to wash darks and whites, but when it comes to denim you should take it seriously.
Despite the apocryphal tales about how to wash denim – “Wear them ever, wash them never” (Albam) – there are some maintenance myths that we’re calling hogwash on. Because whilst it’s true that denim does not need cleaning compulsively, you don’t want your denim to distance you from society.
Jean-eology: How To Wash Raw Denim
Denim was originally designed to withstand the rigours of the blue collar workday, not to be washed and dried on a weekly cycle. This is why denim jackets, denim shirts and denim jeans washing should not take place in a machine: though efficient, the washer-dryer will spoil the unique shape, colour and character of your denim.
Indeed, most denim devotees would urge you not to wash (even by hand) your jackets and jeans for at least six months after purchasing, so as to preserve the fabric, avoid breaking down the fibres, and give your denim chance to take on its own distinct patterns (whiskering at the front, honeycombing behind the knees, perhaps even the shape of your wallet or phone in a pocket).
With the CEO of Levi’s on your side, washing raw denim is easy – he went on record saying he hadn’t washed his jeans in a year – here’s how to keep your denim jacket clean without seeing the inside of a washing machine:
Soak Your Jean Jacket in Vinegar
Not just delicious on your Friday night fish and chips, vinegar also has its uses as a denim detergent. Add half a cup of distilled white vinegar to cold water and soak your jacket for about half an hour. Unlike soap, which washes away denim’s dye over time, vinegar locks in the colour, keeping your jacket dark and your white T-shirt clean. Oh, and don’t worry about smelling like last night’s takeaway; the vinegar aroma disappears once the denim is dry.
Give Your Jacket a Steam Shower
Warm water not only fades denim, it also causes it to shrink, so don’t ever let the hot tap come into contact with your jean jacket. Instead, hang it up in the bathroom whilst you are taking a shower, allowing the room to become nice and steamy. A small amount of water vapour won’t make the material swell but will help keep the fabric fresh for longer.
Hang Your Denim Jacket Outside
It’s not only your washing machine which poses a threat to your denim jacket, but your tumble dryer, too. High temperatures make denim shrink, and tumbling leads to unnecessary wear and tear. Instead, air wet denim outside on a nice day and be rewarded with a fresh, rejuvenated scent. Just be sure they’re not hanging in direct sunlight as the sun can bleach dark denim faster than you can say Jack Robinson.
Don’t have any outdoor space and wondering how to dry a denim jacket without resorting to tumbling? Simple: lay a towel flat on the floor to catch any dye or water drips, and then hang over a clothes horse to dry au naturel.
4 Signs You Should Wash Your Denim Jacket
Now you know not to wash your denim too soon, how do you determine when your jean jacket is ready for a rinse?
A good rule of thumb – which will likely be around the six-to-eight month mark – is that once the elbow area starts to bunch and lose some blue, then it’s cleaning time. Of course, the point at which this happens will vary: are you wearing your jacket daily or occasionally? Adjust the date accordingly – a sick fade isn’t worth a sick smell.
Other signs which suggest your denim jacket is ready for a soak include:
The technical term for holes in your denim, a blowout is a sign that your jean jacket is due a refresh. This is because blowouts are the result of embedded dirt, oil and grime wearing away the fibres and causing the fabric to break down. Often found in the crotch of jeans or the elbows of jackets, this sign of excessive wear means it’s time to take the plunge.
Does your denim jacket leave a lingering whiff in your wardrobe, which you can still smell at arm’s length? Congratulations – so can anyone you’ve ever been in close proximity to. If your denim smells, it needs a soak. End of.
There are many reasons why your denim might get damp – perhaps you live in a humid climate, perhaps you keep getting caught in the rain, perhaps you have hyperactive sweat glands – but this is no excuse for not letting your jacket dry off. If you don’t, and you’ve started noticing a bready sort of smell, run a mile. That’s mildew.
In all seriousness, denim and damp do not a match make, so if you’ve let your jacket get wet then you need to give it a wash.
Now this one is a moral grey area, and included here solely for interest. If that’s your bag, however, and you are facing a stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, you might want to wash any denim you were wearing at the scene of the crime pronto. So individual are jeans and denim jackets that the FBI has used unique fade marks to successfully identify and convict criminals on several occasions. Clever, eh?
Denim Dictionary: Terms to Look Out For
Having completed your home economics lesson on how to wash denim, how about an English class? You can’t be a true denim devotee without knowing your finish treatments from your fabric weights, so here’s a quick vocab lesson on the denim terms every guy needs to know:
This is basically a fancy way of saying ‘pre-washed’ or ‘pre-shrunk’. A repeated process of stretching and steaming the fabric ensures they’re the perfect size when you buy them. Pre-washed denim looks and feels worn in when you buy it, with some whiskering and fading already in the fabric. It doesn’t need as much attention as raw denim: just wash infrequently, inside out, in cold water and drip dry.
Also referred to as ‘dry denim’, this means the fabric has been unwashed and untreated before arriving at your high street store. Raw denim is dark and uniform, with no fade or wash. It feels really stiff at first, and is not particularly comfortable to wear. But be patient! It will soon soften up. Because it has not been sanforized, most brands recommend wearing raw denim for a prolonged period of time before the first wash to stretch it out naturally.
Selvedge is a word that derives from ‘self-edge’, and refers to fabric woven on an old-school shuttle loom. Production of selvedge denim all but stopped in the United States in the 1950s, but has become a big industry in Japan, where denim continues to be made the vintage way. Most selvedge denim is produced in small batches and therefore tends to indicate high quality garments.
Honeycombs and Whiskering
When wearing raw denim, unique fades will begin to appear in the fabric over time. In the knee and elbow creases, this tends to be a sort of zig zag pattern known as ‘honeycombs’. Around the upper thighs and shoulders, prominent creases are called ‘whiskering’. If you buy pre-faded denim, it will often mimic these wear patterns to create a more natural distressed look.
Denim is usually measured in ounces, with the weight of a pair of jeans or a denim jacket measured according to how heavy one yard of the fabric is. The lighter the weight, the thinner the fabric. An average piece of raw selvedge denim tends to be in the region of 13-14 ounces, though hardcore denim heads have been known to trade denim north of 15 ounces in their quest for faded glory.
How To Look After Your Denim Jacket
- Take time to break your jean jacket in. Denim really does sculpt itself to your body, so washing too soon will ruin this shape. Try not to wash new denim for at least six months.
- Never wash your denim in the machine. Always turn inside out and spot clean or rinse in cold water by hand.
- To zap odours, hang your denim jacket in the bathroom whilst you shower. The damp steam will help keep it fresh.
- To maintain the colour, add half a cup of white vinegar to cold water and soak your jacket for half an hour.
- To dry, air your denim jacket outside or drip dry on a clothes horse. Never use your tumble dryer.
- Denim needs to breathe, so be sure you don’t hang your denim jacket in a crowded closet.
On That Note
So there you have it, an intensive guide on all there is to know about caring for your denim jacket. Keeping it in the best condition requires knowing when to clean it, what the best ways to do this are, and how to casually spruce it up with some good care products. Learn these golden rules and you'll have your trusty denim jacket lasting you for years to come.